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Notes from a croquet virgin
by Tsahai Ungar
Photos by Adrian Wadley
Posted January 5, 2000
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Complete final results of the Calzona, Croquet World Events Board


The event was the Calzona - the annual team matches between California and Arizona, played on the San Francisco Croquet Club lawns. Though it's a strong event - in this instance including three members of the U.S. international team - it's not important enough to merit feature treatment in our magazine. But this isn't your average croquet story. It isn't every day that someone who has never picked up a croquet mallet comes to a croquet tournament, stays for days, and then shares her impressions of the sport in writing - but without making any serious attempt to come to grips with the fundamentals of the game! It's hard to say whether or how well this young lady's observations will shed new light upon our sadly misunderstood sport in the great world beyond the lawns. But croquet players may profit from knowing exactly how their performance is being judged from courtside by a croquet virgin.
Part 1: Leaping Antelope or Flying Squirrel ?

The Game. Quite the subtle sport, equipped with silent bone-cracking moments where indeed mind over matter is, well - only as good as hand-eye coordination in that instant. Little birds dressed in white, twittering about the lawn. Although, truth be told, the players vary drastically from leaping antelope to flying squirrels, displaying varying dimensions of body, mind, and spirit with tremendous ease and grace in this unlikely group.

Mik Mehas and the Fournier brothers at the Calzona
California's Mik Mehas - watched here by Arizona's Fournier brothers - was the only player to win all six singles games. The three are on the six-man United States team for the MacRobertson 2000 matches in New Zealand, croquet's premier international team event.
Yes, one player leaned over and told me of a particular insight made at a previous game. "So, when does it begin?" queried a female spectator standing in the center of the players, capturing the subtlety I was alluding to previously. Of course, there being no scoreboard, no large rash sweeping movements, no screaming onlookers or girls leaping about swinging pendulous breasts - many might ask the question, "Why do they bother to play?" And truly, after spending an afternoon watching the activities at hand, I might answer, "Why not?" Which would lead us to an in-depth conversation as to the general speeding pace of the world we live in and the increasing need to have an insatiable appetite for MORE, in order to keep up let alone pass opportunity and allow it to catch up with us - so there is something quite lovely about the ability to compete in this civilized fashion, where brains are brawn and you just need to be able to swing.

I mean, each player has a different thing going. Getting to know just a few of the angles sitting there, totally ignorant of what I was watching, underneath a white overhang set up to protect the innocent as the day before had been garnished with rain, I heard every sort of thing one might imagine. From one gentleman's loss of $1.2 million - leaving him with $4,000 and the black leer of depression staring at him - what does he do? He goes to a bar to take his mind off things, where he meets a gent who offers to teach him croquet.

...There is something quite lovely about the competing in this civilized fashion, where brains are brawn and you just need to be able to swing.

Wasn't I talking about getting ahead of opportunity a little earlier? Well, sometimes you've got to get behind opportunity as well. Drink her, suckle her, snort her - you never know where she'll turn up. Another chap is an eighteen year-old aficionado, world champion. And dedicatedly receives straight A's in school, managing to stay so focussed on his game he goes home daily after school and practices on the lawn his home is so handily equipped with.

Another gent, a wine maker in Napa Valley, mentioned early on that he'd gone out drinking the previous night with his son - so I inquired immediately as to his son's age. Which turned out to be the same as mine. Not only was I to find out a thing or two about this game, but I was to set myself up on a potential blind date as well. At least, I have his number now and his father has mine as well, to pass onto his son if he sees fit. You never know once the number has passed from your hand on - which way fate will blow it. Yes, fate is a funny friend.

Of course, one cannot leave out the "Bad Boy" in the group - a man approaching sixty who so delicately displays this motto on the seat of his pants, in blazing red letters against the traditional whites, really packing a wallop. This man admittedly has carved out his own niche, in croquet - which he came to from his earnest love of baseball. The Bad Boy never even introduced himself by name, but proceeded to share a bit about his life philosophies, managing, seemingly - to still be spurred by faith rather than comfort and security. Something that always impresses me, especially when most people getting on in years are accumulating barnacles on their backsides.

Yes, I'd been told to watch out for this one, sitting abreast the sidelines. I'd been told the "Bad Boy" was pure predator, and that being a woman myself, I should expect the inevitable strike. Lunging to the opportunity like a vulture to the blood. And indeed, as I sat there taking in random bits of commentary, laughing and straddling the wooden bench that was my perch, the Bad Boy came over and said behind me to the back of my neck "Are you the hyena?" A direct reference to the timbre of my laugh, which admittedly is abundant in...well - high pitched shock value. He later told me that despite his general ability to concentrate and his daily practice of meditation, he couldn't shut my laugh out. Ahhhh, a useful weapon.

California winemaker Charlie Smith executes the jump shot that makes it possible to score the hoop from a difficult side angle.
And yes, there was a later - because this same hungry hunter had, of course, invited me to the After Party. Which I hadn't been intending on attending, but at the point of invitation I had become so intrigued by the players that I found it in my best interest to rearrange my plans and go. And I am not sorry that I did. It was a grand opportunity to learn a thing or two about what makes these people tick, and to receive random bits of advice floating about, useful if you listen well. Let alone the magnificent feast set out on a large table - three courses making me gluttonous beyond my better judgment. And the lovely house in which the evening was set - the good doctors' home, in San Mateo, fully equipped with one-third of an acre: a little piece of the country in the outcroppings of suburbia.

Yes, I will say that none of it was particularly as I'd imagined. Besides perhaps the actual process of mallet hitting ball on green grass beneath cloudy but still sunny skies. This was easy to anticipate. And although I still do not have a clear sense of the game's actual rules - I have the suggestion from the gentleman who took up the offer at the bar to learn croquet, that I myself pick up a mallet and give it a go. And perhaps I shall.

Part 2: Once again and a little to the left in the dark, please

Have you ever witnessed the absurdity of grown men who are very grown indeed, running about in the near dark with very firm nipples made quite forward by chilled air - scrambling politely after some small balls, wearing white so they are that much more illuminated and ghostly in the shedding day turning to dark night? Well, I never had, 'til the curiosity once again got the better of me and I had to sneak onto the sidelines for the last few hours of the final games.

Though slightly off his best form in the Calzona, eighteen-year-old Jacques Fournier is widely considered America's brightest rising star in international competition.
Admittedly, I was drawn by the smell of victory or defeat: spicy thick, and so manly. Each side leaning in with all they had. Just when you thought it was all over. Just when the Arizona team, only the night before, had declared victory, sauntering about and marking territory by jabbering about picking up the trophy in Beverly Hills. Just when they were smacking their lips and sticking out their tongues, our California team got some get up and go! Yes. They eased up on ol' Arizona and brought their losing asses up to speed.

Today I was serious and quiet, determined not to distract the players. The tension was palpable. It was magnificent to get a bit of the bite that makes these people compete. Each move having the potential to change the game's outcome so drastically. I'd ask the players themselves about the score, and they themselves couldn't tell me.

Despite having ferociously bitten his tongue while chomping a bit of sandwich early in the day, (no laughing matter when you stop to consider that the tongue has literally hundreds of nerve endings) Ren on the Arizona team was able to carry through and win his game. Every minute I could feel the shift of morale between the teams. Back and forth. Forth and back. A bit like emotional Ping-Pong.

I was truly impressed by Charles' ability to relax in spite of the pressure. It seemed that Erv's hit-in after time earlier in the day had truly re-instilled confidence in the California team. Unfortunately, as I witnessed (and paid homage to) these men's brave and heroic antics, I was completely unaware of the actions taking place on the other lawn.

California captain Carl Hanson (standing) offers encouragement to sidelined team members Charlie Smith and Jim Audas at a low point in California's fortunes.
The absurdity of all of us shivering together as it got colder and colder, as 4:00 turned into 4:15 into 4:30 into 4:45 into 5:00 at night: the sun had set and the moon was rising. It was comedy. One Arizona player after the next running across the field and grabbing their stuff with shouts of "Goodbye!" as they fled to catch their 'plane.

There was the suggestion of calling it a tie, but that was just so darn unfulfilling. We wanted victory or defeat, dammit!! Not wimpy equality. The Bad Boy out there just going for it - in the near total dark I don't even know what he was doing but it was darn impressive!!!

And Wayne on the other lawn. I was now standing in between the lawns so I could peer at both games. Even after Michael "Bad Boy" Mehas had finished his game - Wayne kept hitting away. Adrian - the resident Brit who had been invited to play with the Californians - was contemplating moving his motorcycle so his headlights could add a little light to the subject. And I just kept trying to figure out what was going on in the midst of the darkening chaos.

By golly - we won! That was what was going on! All that determination and steady under pressure and you can do it ol' boy - really pulled it together, because by golly even in the freezing cold with just the mild hint of where the balls were, lit by moonlight - ol' Caly came in and brought home the winning team! It nearly brought tears to my eyes to see how absolutely thrilled dear Carl the Captain really was. Good game, men!

And thank you for the absolutely unique experience of being invited to take just a tiny wedge out of your piece of the pie. Bon appetit!!!

Self Profile of the author

Writer Tsahai Ungar with Charlie Smith.
So, in case you were wondering who this girl is and hasn't she anything to do on the weekends?...I'll tell you that I asked around and apparently she's one of those Bay Area natives - who arrived here as a babe of two in a kangaroo's pouch. Yes, and not only that, but her dear parents met in Ethiopia in 1969 - beginning the journey that brought her to us, and to this lovely croquet match. She apparently has written from the age of seven to this present date - and is absolutely thrilled to live in a fashion that will create more stories to transcribe and tell. She is terribly absolutely incredibly unabashedly excited about life and would love any suggestions as to ways that her writing could benefit any individual or organization - along with any opportunities to make profound sums of money through this thoroughly strange and noble art! email: tsahithere@hotmail.com.


 
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